Pennsylvania Dutch cooking does not seem to capture the food lover’s imagination the way barbecue, Southern, Cajun/Creole, Pacific Northwest or other American cooking styles do. Ask most people what they know of it, and they are likely to mention the tourist smorgasbords of Lancaster County or — gasp! — scrapple.
As a native son of the cuisine, I’ve always wondered why. While you might not hanker for crispy fried slices of scrapple (cooked pork-trimmings mush) the way I do, there’s much appealing comfort food to be found. And while it is overlooked and often misunderstood, it is more widespread than you think; as food historian William Woys Weaver says, “You can get Pennsylvania Dutch cooking in Ontario.”
Why hasn’t it become more famous, then? Why isn’t it what Weaver calls a “theme cuisine”? He says it's because there are two very different cookeries involved: the real thing (home cooking) and the tourist fare that developed in the 1930s.
“The great myth is that Pennsylvania Dutch means Amish, when in fact the Amish represent only about 5 percent of the total Pennsylvania Dutch population,” says Weaver, director of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism in Devon, Pa. “They are good farmers, but culinary art is not what they are about.”
In fact, America’s best-known Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant was not in the Keystone State at all, but on the site where the Kennedy Center now overlooks the Potomac. Marjory Hendricks owned and operated the Water Gate Inn from 1942 to 1966. She was born in Seattle but loved the Pennsylvania Dutch culture so much that she re-created its decor and dishes, including some with traditional names. Shrimp wiggle esche puddle (shrimp and peas in cream sauce), anyone?
Another misunderstanding is that “Dutch” is connected to Holland; in fact, the heritage is German. In his “Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods and Foodways” (Stackpole Books, 2002), Weaver explains the people as being a mix of the “plain,” such as the Amish — descendants of 18th- and 19th-century Anabaptist German immigrants — and the “fancy” — descendants of Reformed and Lutheran German immigrants. Local-food culture is central to both.
It gets even more intricate. About 25 counties make up “Dutch country,” says Weaver, and microclimates mean there’s “a wide range of local ingredients, from saffron cookery in Lebanon County to the maple sugar belt in Somerset County.”
In Lancaster County in the 1970s and ’80s, I was surrounded by food and cooking every day.
Asparagus, cherries, sweet corn, peaches, lima beans: Growing them ourselves or taking car trips to get the best available was a regular part of our routine. (Even now, a drive in the countryside takes you past dozens of farm stands with signs telling passersby what the farmers have to offer: potatoes, eggs, goat’s milk, cheese, corn, baked goods and more.) My grandfather was forever telling us that the best tomatoes came from Washington Boro; if you wanted good tomatoes, that was where to go. If we weren’t growing our own corn, we would contact the farm of choice to let them know what time we were coming and how much we wanted. That way, the farmer would be just rolling in on the picking wagon when we pulled up; we knew we would get the corn at its peak sweetness. We would rush home to process it and get it in the freezer as fast as possible; everyone in the family had a task to make it happen.
We shared bounties from our own garden or kitchen with friends and neighbors. We grew and cooked more than we could eat, and we routinely dispersed fresh garden produce, plates of cookies, quarts of soup and jars of pickles to an appreciative crowd.
Most people we knew had a pantry full of home-canned goods and a freezer in their basement. Varieties of fruits and vegetables were selected for growing or purchase not only for their fresh eating qualities but also for their suitability to be canned or frozen. Preserving food was not just about being frugal, about saving excess garden produce for later; it was also our way in the offseason of anticipating next season’s bumper crop.
Freshness, seasonality and tradition each play a role in what we expect to see on the table at different times of the year. We ring in the new year with roast pork and sauerkraut for good luck. Springtime brings dandelion or endive salads with hot bacon dressing. Although each meal when I was growing up featured meat in some form, the star in spring and summer was the fresh produce. My maternal grandmother pickled various items all summer long, then combined them into Pennsylvania Dutch chowchow. I still remember picking out my favorite morsels: the big, meaty pickled lima beans and the cauliflower tips.
In fall, we dig up potatoes. Wintertime features roasts, plus stews surrounded by dishes made from the canned, pickled or frozen bounties of summer.
Like other regional fare, Pennsylvania Dutch foods come with their own unique lingo: Lebanon bologna, schnitz and knepp, whoopee pies. A proper Pennsylvania Dutch meal supposedly consists of seven sweets and seven sours. I never stopped to count them, but I do know that we never ended a meal feeling hungry.
The obsession with food is handed down from generation to generation; it is how we relate to our community. The flavors and the cooking implements evolve, but the connection with food remains.
I moved from Pennsylvania to Virginia nearly 30 years ago, but I’ve kept the food traditions alive. My great-grandmother cooked in a wood-fired oven, where she measured the temperature by sticking her arm in. (Everyone swears it worked, because her pies were perfect.) In turn, my friends chipped in and bought me a wood-fired backyard pizza oven that I use not just for pizza but also for roasts, breads, even Thanksgiving dinner.
Whenever I return to my parents’ home in Lancaster, I find it remarkable how refined each dish is after generations of perfecting ingredients and processes.
Chicken corn soup and chicken potpie both start with a rich stock made with the carcass and deglazed pan from Sunday’s roast chicken. We were fortunate to have a rotisserie in our oven, useful to help us make the best stock. Both dishes can use leftover chicken, but more often we would pressure-cook a small chicken and its giblets to obtain a bit more stock and provide moist chicken meat for the pot.
Chicken corn soup is a hearty version of chicken noodle soup, frequently served for lunch. It is made not only during peak corn season but also through the year using corn that was blanched, shocked in ice water, cut from the cob and frozen at the height of sweetness. The soup includes fine egg noodles as well as small dumplings known as rivvels, which also are used in Pennsylvania Dutch ham and bean soup. Chicken corn soup includes diced hard-cooked egg, which adds flavor and texture.
I like to dice chicken giblets into the soup; it’s a good place to use giblets accumulated in the freezer from past chicken meals.
Chicken potpie holds a special place in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where firehouses and churches advertise potpie suppers. At our house, it was frequently requested as the meal of choice for a birthday or upon returning home after a cold winter outing.
It’s not a pie; it has no crust. It is more of a stew with flat, square noodles. The noodles can be bought dried, but they are easy to make at home. The potpie can be made with beef, ham, venison or turkey, but the most common protein is chicken. It is a comforting, somewhat bland dish that’s simple to put together. I once cooked enough of it to feed 150 people at a Cub Scout camp-out.
I do have a real pie for you: shoofly. My mother used to sing, “Shoofly pie and apple pan dowdy make your eyes light up and your stomach say howdy!” It is definitely worth singing about. A single crust holds layers of buttery, sugary, molasses-y deliciousness that are gooey (bottom), caky (middle) and crumbly (top). I have eaten many shoofly pies in my time, but the one made by Mrs. Witmeyer, an elderly neighbor of my Lancaster childhood, remains the best. She shared this recipe with my mother, and now, in the spirit of Pennsylvania Dutch hospitality, I’m sharing it with you.
Food historian Weaver, who sees a brewing renaissance in traditional (and new-wave) Pennsylvania Dutch cookery, reminded me that many foods we consider to be true specialties were really so-called tourist fare. Moreover, some of them didn’t originate in Pennsylvania, or even Germany. Whoopee pies were born in Massachusetts in 1928 but were co-opted by the Amish, says Weaver; chicken potpie was adapted by the Dutch to change the traditional crust to noodles; chowchow is Asian; and even shoofly pie’s local origins are suspect.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. In my family, for instance, potpie memories stretch back to my father’s childhood in the 1930s, and we had been having whoopee pies for years by the time I included them in a fourth-grade school report. Whether those dishes and others started as tourist fare or not, my own family’s food was — and remains — authentic for one simple reason: We make it ourselves. That is what qualifies it as Pennsylvania Dutch, through and through.